Chief Justice John Roberts wars ‘fiscal cliff’ will delay justice

Posted at 9:02 PM, Dec 31, 2012

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Chief Justice John Roberts is warning leaders in the other two branches of the federal government that the pending “fiscal cliff” would “inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.”

In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Roberts on Monday said the federal courts have already made significant cuts in their funding, representing only about two-tenths of 1% of the entire federal budget. He said a prolonged reduction would be extremely hard to overcome.

“I therefore encourage the President and Congress to be especially attentive to the needs of the Judicial Branch and provide the resources necessary for its operations,” said the chief justice. “Those vital resource needs include the appointment of an adequate number of judges to keep current on pending cases. At the close of 2012, 27 of the existing judicial vacancies are designated as presenting judicial emergencies.”

Roberts made his remarks in a 16-page summary of U.S. courts, part of his role as head of the entire federal judiciary.

President Barack Obama said Monday an agreement to avert the “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases and spending cuts appeared to be “within sight.” Senate and House leaders were continuing to meet behind closed doors with White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, to reach at least a temporary tax and spending agreement.

Roberts noted the judicial branch generally receives less attention when it comes to its spending, but an “aggressive” cost-containment strategy has been in place since 2004.

“Our country faces new challenges, including the much publicized ‘fiscal cliff’ and the longer-term problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt,” Roberts said. “No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution. We in the judiciary stand outside the political arena, but we can continue to do our part to address the financial challenges within our sphere.”

The federal court system and its administrative offices operate on an annual budget of nearly $7 billion. That includes judges trying and hearing cases and appeals, both criminal and civil; managing pretrial, defender, and probation offices; and maintaining the bankruptcy court system. Most of the money — about 62% — goes for personnel costs.

Roberts said the Supreme Court itself requested a 2.8% decrease in its $75.55 million operations budget in fiscal year 2012. He added a 3.7% decrease is expected for fiscal year 2014.

There currently are 75 judicial vacancies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Thirty-two nominations by the president are pending, awaiting Senate confirmation.

There 874 federal judges, including the nine-member Supreme Court, the district and appeals courts, and the nine-member Court of International Trade.

Past year-end reports from the current chief justice have focused on budget cutbacks, frozen salaries, rising caseloads, and court security.

These summaries have been an annual tradition for about four decades. They were begun by the late Chief Justice Warren Burger as a way to speak to the executive branch and Congress, the judiciary itself, and the public at large.